Blind Faith: A Decade of Apple Accessibility

From time to time, various organizations and individuals have taken it upon themselves to either denounce Apple’s accessibility efforts, or to call to arms the visually impaired community against imagined past or future slights by Apple’s engineers. Thankfully, these occasions are becoming fewer as the Mac and iOS community of visually impaired users grows, and it becomes more difficult to perpetuate myths about Apple’s platforms.

Not all these attempts, however, have been malicious in nature. In many cases, they spring from the well of false information that was seeded in years passed, or out of simple ignorance. In an attempt to distill these muddied waters, let’s take a look at the history and myths regarding Apple’s accessibility efforts in the last decade.

To find one of the most common stances of Apple’s critics in the VI community, we have to go back a decade to Apple’s transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X. This was a complete rewrite of the operating system from the ground up. As a result, detractors will argue, outSpoken for Mac, the screen reader of choice for Mac systems of the past, was no longer a viable option, leaving Mac’s visually impaired community without access. This is, however, a blatant manipulation of facts which does not hold up under critical scrutiny.

Outspoken for Mac was developed by Berkley Systems, and eventually changed hands to Alva Access Group. In the early 1990’s, a version was developed for Microsoft Windows as well.

As stated earlier, Mac OS X was a complete rewrite from the ground up. Version 10.0, its first release, was very much an incomplete product, as any history of OS X will readily admit. To help bridge the divide, Mac’s during this time could run OS 9 as well as OS X. It was a bumpy transition for all users, and was always expected to be so. Users of outSpoken could continue using Macs under OS 9 during this time, and many users, visually impaired or otherwise, chose to do so. In fact, Apple continued shipping OS 9 with new Macs for quite some time following OS X’s initial release.

As an incomplete product, the accessibility API’s were not immediately ready in OS X. They became officially part of the operating system in version 10.2, released in September 2002, and just eighteen months after 10.0. OS X did not become the default OS shipping on new Macs until 2003.

The historical conclusion we can draw from the above is therefore quite clear: Like many, (probably most), users, visually impaired Mac users could continue to use OS 9 while Apple worked to complete OS X and the accessibility API’s.

A related myth is that Apple did not allow third-parties to develop access solutions, such as screen readers, for the Mac platform. This is both inaccurate and perplexing in its disregard of the facts. The accessibility API’s can be, and have been, used by third-parties to create access solutions. There is nothing stopping someone from building a third-party screen reader for Mac. Many third-party apps have used the accessibility API’s to control the system, such as voice-recognition software, and Apple encourages their use in AppleScript and Automator development, as well.

The arguments regarding Apple’s growing pains as it transitioned to the new OS architecture really start to break down when one takes into account the parallel events that were taking place in the PC universe at the same time.

Windows 95, 98, and ME were consumer versions of the Microsoft Windows OS released from 1995 through 2000. Windows NT was the enterprise/server grade version of the OS. At the same time, Windows NT was entirely separate from the consumer versions, similar almost exclusively in aesthetics. Henter-Joyce (now Freedom Scientific), for instance, during this time, had to ship two separate versions of Jaws for Windows, the popular Windows screen reading solution. One version worked with Windows 95/98/ME and another with Windows NT/2000.

When Windows XP was released, Microsoft dropped the legacy technology of its consumer operating systems, much of it still rooted in DOS, in favor of the more modern core of its NT system.

Outspoken for Windows, of which I was also a fan and user, had never supported Windows NT, and were left having to do a rewrite from the ground up in the fall of 2001 if they wanted to support XP. Alva chose to discontinue both Outspoken products for precisely the same reasons and more or less simultaneously.

I’ve been asked about, and occasionally mocked for, my steadfast faith in Apple’s commitment to accessibility, and its visually impaired user-base in particular. Some of my confidence stems from the dedicated and innovative engineers at Apple with whom I have been fortunate enough to speak over the years I have worked on this web site. Still more is grounded in Apple’s staggering display of commitment since the release of Mac OS X a decade ago.

Some of the communities more outspoken members have been exceptionally vocal about their displeasure that Apple does not reveal more of its future plans regarding accessibility, and thereby assume that Apple cannot be trusted to maintain its commitment. This point of view, however, shows an enormous ignorance of Apple’s business practices across the board at best, or a sense of entitlement to special treatment at worst.

Anyone who has watched Apple’s evolution over the past ten years knows that there is one overriding truth above all others when it comes to the company’s public relations practices. That is, put simply, that little, or often nothing, is ever announced until it is absolutely ready. This prevents Apple from disappointing its customers, keeps the competition guessing about what is happening behind Apple’s vail of secrecy, and provides other advantages. An entire industry has sprung up in the blogosphere around Apple rumors and predictions, which creates more buzz and keeps Apple’s users engaged with one another and invested in the company’s platforms.

This has caused more than a little backlash from the visually impaired community at times, who expect to be treated differently from the rest of Apple’s user-base. Some justify this stance by saying that they only want a steady stream of reassurances from Apple that its commitment remains, but I believe this argument to be disingenuous for two reasons.

First, Apple makes its commitment to accessibility quite clear on its official accessibility pages. Users looking for reassurance can find it here.

Second, and more importantly, is that, while Apple has said little or nothing in advance of accessibility improvements in product releases, those releases have come with ever increasing frequency, and demonstrate not only a commitment to accessibility, but a growing enthusiasm for and investment in that commitment.

Personally, I find that actions speak louder than words. Adobe Systems, for instance, boasts frequently about its commitment to accessibility, but visually impaired users have seen very little of real-world results from this lip service.

Let’s take a look at the highlights from Apple’s accessibility efforts in the last decade. We will restrict this list to only relatively major points, as minor accessibility improvements here and there in various products are far too numerous to list.

  1. Apple releases OS X in March 2001. By September 2002, as the platform gains stability, accessibility API’s are introduced. A gap of just 18 months, during which OS 9 is still quite viable and, in fact, used by most Mac users in general.
  2. OS X 10.2 and 10.3 are released with accessibility features less complex than screen readers, many of which were aimed at users with partial vision loss.
  3. In April 2005, VoiceOver is introduced with Mac OS X 10.4 after a lengthy beta cycle with actual users out in the field.
  4. In the summer of 2006, Steve Jobs demos upcoming features of 10.5. He mentions VoiceOver and the new Alex TTS voice during his keynote at WWDC.
  5. In March 2007, the iTunes application becomes nearly entirely accessible. The store front being the sole exception, though it is still possible to purchase individual tracks.
  6. In October 2007, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard is released with significant advancements in VoiceOver, including the Alex TTS, Braille display support, and more.
  7. In September 2008, Apple finishes implementing accessibility in iTunes, making the entire store front accessible on both the Mac and Windows platforms.
  8. In conjunction with the iTunes accessibility improvements,Apple releases iPod nanos with speaking menus, greatly enhancing their accessibility for blind users.
  9. In June 2009, Apple releases its iPhone 3GS, equipped with VoiceOver for iOS, the first gesture-based screen reader. They accomplished what the visually impaired community has deemed impossible in making a fully touch screen interface accessible to the blind.
  10. In August 2009, Apple releases Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, with huge advancements in VoiceOver, including scripting, gesture-based navigation, and more.
  11. In September 2009, the iPod touch is updated to also include VoiceOver.
  12. Through 2008-2009, various versions of iLife and iWork are released, gradually improving accessibility to Apple’s life-style and productivity suites.
  13. In April 2010, the iPad is released with VoiceOver support straight out of the gate. In addition, VoiceOver has been subtly modified, as has the entire iOS operating system, for easier use on the larger screen of the tablet.
  14. Also in April 2010, iBooks is released for the iPad, making it the first mainstream ebook platform fully accessible to the blind.
  15. In June 2010, Apple releases iOS 4.0 with significant new features to the touch-based version of VoiceOver, including Braille support and more.
  16. In September 2010, Apple releases iOS 4.1 with even more enhancements to VoiceOver, including full external keyboard support to the iOS operating system.
  17. In October 2010, Apple releases iLife 2011 for Mac with tremendously improved accessibility in GarageBand, iPhoto, and iMovie, the only apps to be updated in this release of the suite.
  18. In November 2010, Apple updates its second generation AppleTV to include VoiceOver, less than two months after the device began shipping.

In light of the above, it is difficult to understand why there are those in the visually impaired community who so energetically criticized Apple for not mentioning its accessibility plans during a very brief sneak preview of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion last October. That demonstration took place at a media event, aimed at typical users, and focused exclusively on flashy and easily exhibited features that will be part of the upcoming release. Indeed, shouldn’t the improvements to VoiceOver in iOS, the accessibility improvements in iLife, and the quick addition of VoiceOver to AppleTV be a clear enough signal that Apple’s commitment to equal access has not wavered? These additions all came within weeks of Apple’s demonstration of OS X 10.7 at its media event. Apple didn’t mention them, either.

Apple has proven its commitment to accessibility through its history, but never more so than in the last decade. I would much rather have a company like Apple that talks little and does much, than a company like so many others who talk big and do little or nothing.

Has Apple been perfect? Of course not. Specifically, the improvements to iTunes and iLife were far too slow in coming, and there will always be areas where Apple can improve its products, not only in terms of accessibility.

Apple has earned the faith that I, and so many other visually impaired Mac and iOS users, continue to have in its innovation and products. We will be the first to voice concerns if Apple ever does waver in its commitment to accessibility, as it will be those of us who have embraced its platforms who will be the first to suffer.

Until and unless that happenstance arises, Apple should be encouraged to continue down its path of ensuring users with disabilities are equal and simultaneous participants in the growth of its platforms. We should not expect or demand special treatment, but instead appreciate the fact that we can enjoy these new products alongside our sighted brethren as they become available.

This is why I have faith.